Bill Sullivan, professor of pharmacology and microbiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, writes that he’s always been curious about why we are the way we are, with all of our many often peculiar differences. So many traits, preferences, and physical qualities seem inherent, unable to be altered — like his strong distaste for broccoli — but why? In Pleased to Meet Me, he sets out in detail how genes influence so much about individuals — from who we vote for to how much we like coffee — and how and why we’ve evolved this way.
Sullivan examines a wide range of traits and behaviors in detail, ranging from sexuality to overeating, preferences for certain foods and repulsions by others, drug and alcohol tolerance (including an eye-opening scientific study of Ozzy Osbourne), illnesses, germs, and ability to fight them, and even things I’d thought were entirely learned with no biological component, like political affiliations. He moves through sections devoted to tastes, addictions, moods, fears, and attractions, among many others.
There is so much that’s fascinating here, and suffice to say there’s more that’s potentially influenced by genetics than I ever thought possible. That’s not to say we should give in and indulge any and every vice — he also emphasizes that although a lot is programmed into our genes, there’s still personal responsibility and choice to manage responses. But it serves as a helpful reminder that much of the hand we’re dealt was beyond our choosing, and moral judgment of others helps nothing.
One of the most fascinating things I learned was how quickly certain factors can be passed on through epigenetics, so how events influence gene expression but don’t change the gene’s code. He uses the example of anxiety not requiring a long evolution and passing from grandparents who learned to experience it, and mice parents passing on fears they’d only just learned to their offspring. A single generation! Not to mention how much our parents’ diets and vices can affect our own desires.
Sometimes it’s a bit unnerving, especially about how what we eat affects us, but it’s not alarmist. He offers some thoughtful ideas and considerations to close each section that take some of the sting out and suggest possibilities for areas we can control. It’s a good blend of accessible science for lay readers and actionable ideas for training our thinking on what we can reasonably do with this information.
To my surprise, this book contains the best scientific argument against an afterlife and anything supernatural I’ve ever read. It’s bold and straightforward. His explanation of brain function is clear and blunt while laying out science that brooks no argument. I wasn’t expecting this topic to appear here but this section, which also covers various belief systems he explains our “diva” brains have developed to imbue sense and meaning where there is none, like the “just-world fallacy,” might’ve been my favorite. He makes short work of myth and fallacy and stays respectful and entirely sensitive while firmly articulating the importance for retiring the “incorrect hypothesis” of a soul.
We should draw conclusions based on the available evidence. Our brain gets married to beliefs, and divorcing them is painful. Getting into bed with a conclusion is a more casual affair.
There is no greater waste of time and energy than quibbling over the supernatural. We have more than enough real problems in the real world that urgently need solving … Perhaps the greatest gift we can leave future generations is to stop filling their fertile minds with spirits and hobgoblins.
I applaud him. I can also tell that he’s had to make this argument in discussions with people who refuse to be swayed about ghosts or various forms of woo and this book and its to-the-point scientific breakdowns is valuable here.
What’s unique about Sullivan’s style is how he’s able to drive his points home and make them memorable. He breaks down each topic into easily readable parts, and although it’s very much an information-heavy science book, his examples and explanations couldn’t be easier to follow. I often find myself struggling to comprehend everything I’m reading even in pop science books but it’s not the case here.
It’s peppered with jokes and humorous examples, which also helped some of the points make more sense to me than if they’d been relayed with a straight scientific explanation (“Although rabies announces its presence in the brain with all the subtlety of Lady Gaga…”) They can be a bit dad-jokey, but I found many of them pretty hilarious. I’m still laughing about one about the Cowardly Lion and a fecal transplant every time it pops into my head.
I’ve been thinking of this book often since finishing it, and I think I’ll be returning to it often as well, because there are so many times that the topics it covers arise — whether in the news, conversation, other reading — everywhere, really. There’s so much misinformation allowed to proliferate about many of these, perhaps especially in terms of moral judgments about addiction, weight, and the like that have a heavy genetic component. Everyone can benefit from a closer look at the factors that comprise us and the deeper understanding Sullivan provides.
Pleased to Meet Me:
Genes, Germs, and the Curious Forces that Make Us Who We Are
by Bill Sullivan
published August 6, 2019 by National Geographic
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours for unbiased review.